INDIANAPOLIS — When this execrable basketball game was over, Bankers Life Fieldhouse shut down immediately. The Kansas Jayhawks waved at the Kentucky Wildcats, who waved back, and both went their separate ways to the locker rooms. The music was turned off, and since there were no fans the arena went silent in a matter of seconds.
The quiet provided a window to reflect on a stunningly ugly matchup of bluebloods, and the unsettling season that lies ahead.
Kansas won, 65-62, in a rock fight that saw the two teams combined to make 8 of 42 three-point shots (19%). At one point they were 3 of 30 before, ahem, heating up. The Jayhawks won while shooting 30% from the field, which shouldn’t be possible. Kansas coach Bill Self said the newly remodeled arena had “the tightest rims I’ve ever seen in my life,” but still termed his team’s first-half offensive performance “inept.”
But that aesthetic struggle was the least troubling part of the night. There were reports before the game that Kansas defensive specialist Marcus Garrett would not play because he was ill—which immediately prompted COVID-19 concerns. The Jayhawks were coming off a game last Friday against Saint Joseph’s, which on Sunday paused its season after a positive test in the program.
Then Garrett did decide to play, something Self said he did not know would happen until he got on the bus to go to the arena. Self said Garrett first began feeling ill last Friday, then tested negative Saturday and again Tuesday via a PCR test. But the coach’s description of Garrett’s symptoms only escalated concerns.
“He was having a real problem with headaches and bright lights,” Self said. “His stomach was messed up. He said he couldn’t get his wind.” Shortness of breath, headaches and nausea are all among the laundry list of COVID symptoms.
While the ESPN broadcast crew, and later Self, were praising Garrett for his toughness, a lot of other people were wondering how responsible it was for him to play. It’s entirely possible he was ill with something unrelated to the virus, and the test results would back that, but the average American workplace would have sent him home no matter whether he tested negative. College athletic programs have thrown around the “abundance of caution” phrase a lot in the last few months, and playing Garrett would seem closer to an absence of caution.
These are the gray areas college basketball will try to navigate while keeping its season on a shaky course from now until March. Dozens of games already have been canceled, moved and rearranged on the fly, lending an unmistakable AAU feel of impermanence to the proceedings. Many more will follow.
The very fact that this game was being played in this fashion underscored that the season was off to a wobbly start. For the previous nine years, the Champions Classic was a splashy November ESPN doubleheader matching the same four teams—Duke, Kansas, Kentucky and Michigan State—and